|Written by MARION JAMES
Sunday, 05 April 2009 04:21
Not that there is
anything inherently wrong with this genre, but the
English language reader of Turkish fiction could be
forgiven for thinking that all of this country's
novelists write surreal novels that lead one's
imagination into paths it has not trodden before. A
brand new translation, sponsored by the Arts Council
of Great Britain, emphatically dispels this, as it
presents a semi-autobiographical novel by one of
Turkey's best-loved writers.
|Set in the 1920s and 1930s, "The Idle Years"
covers a young man's struggles as his family loses
their wealthy position because his father is a
political activist who ends up having to flee the
country. The narrator never settles into Beirut and
longs to return to his home in Adana.
author Orhan Kemal typing a piece on the typewriter
as he holds his son, Işık Öğütçü, in a photograph
taken in 1959. Kemals 1950 novel Avare Yıllar was
published in English under the title Idle Years.
When he does so, of course, it is not as he left it --
all his friends have moved away, and the neighborhood has
changed out of all recognition. Like many young people he
believes salvation will come from İstanbul, but of course
the streets there turn out not to be paved with gold after
all. Only back in Adana can he find his destiny.
The first part of this story is titled "My Father's House";
the second "The Idle Years," and they are presented in one
volume as the stories run naturally on from one another. But
for me the most fascinating thing about this edition is the
introduction by Turkey's other famous literary Orhan --
He says: "A rather strange fact observable in the world of
literature is that writers of an optimistic nature come less
frequently from prosperous, comfortable and materially
secure backgrounds than from ones where they had to struggle
against hardship and deprivation. This is a rare brand of
optimism that defies our usual understanding of the world.
... We can see many examples of this hard-won wisdom in the
early fiction of Orhan Kemal."
Pamuk, who comes from a very materially secure background,
writes pages full of melancholy -- Kemal, who suffered not
only financial hardship in his youth but was also imprisoned
for five years for his political views, writes pages full of
optimism and hope. It is almost as if when middle-class
angst meets working-class practical cheerfulness, each is
more sharply defined by the clashing contrast.
Pamuk continues: "The author offers reflections on poverty,
disease and unemployment in Adana ... but at the heart of
Orhan Kemal's fiction is another world, a world not full of
anxiety about getting enough to eat -- one he seems to enjoy
telling us more about. Here we find close friendships, the
intimacy of family life, brotherhood and solidarity, meals
shared, innocent neighborhood romances and the pleasures of
simply whiling away time."
Pamuk is right -- Kemal is a Turkish author in the tradition
of greats of Western literature such as Dickens, Hugo and
Dostoyevsky. When Dickens shows us the injustices of the
blacking factory and the debtors' prison in "David
Copperfield" he paints the most amazing characters, chief of
all being Mr. Micawber, who was never able to follow his own
sound advice and so was always reliant on something turning
up. There are few characters in literature so touching as
honest Joe Gargery, the blacksmith in "Great Expectations,"
and Peggoty's family in "David Copperfield." French
literature is full of examples such as the townspeople where
Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" becomes mayor, and the
eponymous "Brothers Karamazov" are similar examples from
In "The Idle Years," Kemal paints wonderful portraits of the
narrator and his mother, and the narrator's friends. His
father is a domineering man, feared and obeyed. With his
friends when he returned to Adana, the unemployed narrator
fills his stomach by playing football. The losing team would
treat the winning team to a meal in a local restaurant,
often the only time they would have a decent meal all week.
When Nejip comes to town on military service he tells them
all about İstanbul: "The marvelous picture he painted played
on my childhood memories, making İstanbul seem a bright land
of promise. It made my home town appear lackluster by
comparison." Maybe they could even play for Fenerbahçe?
But this is no Pollyanna story, where everyone has hopeful
dreams and optimism wins through. In order to earn the bus
fare they take jobs in the local factory. "Cotton particles
were everywhere and I was hit by a strong smell of starch. I
was overwhelmed ... and had forgotten about İstanbul."
Finally reaching the big city, they find so much there to
amaze them. But its charms soon wear thin "because we were
almost always hungry, and beautiful sights didn't fill our
They were free men, but this freedom meant nothing because
they had no money to enjoy their freedom. "İstanbul is one
of a kind! You can hop off its trams, hop on to its taxis
and entertain whom you want at the restaurant of your choice.
... You can set up a factory, or stay unemployed or open a
bank. ... Whatever you want!" Saying this, one morning
starving and cold they board a boat to return to Adana.
It is Kemal's socialist beliefs that provide this touch of
earthy realism as they are woven into the story. In Bursa
State Prison he was influenced by meeting Nazım Hikmet, and
many of their ideas coincide.
He explores what poverty does to individuals; how there is a
solidarity between those stuck in poverty, which is quickly
forgotten by those who manage to climb out of it. The
narrator becomes disillusioned and angry as he perceives the
selfishness of the middle-classes. "Having decided you only
live once' they wanted to dress well, eat well, travel [and]
enjoy themselves. ... They had no interest in why others
weren't able to do the same." But he is not allowed to dwell
on this anger.
A political thinker he meets encourages him to overcome his
rebellious feelings, telling him he has to beat his self-pity.
"It will imprison you in your own mind. You will become your
own worst enemy. It will ruin you! Try it. First get
yourself a job, any job."
Despite the realism, there is hope. "Oh hunger! How deeply I
have felt your ache, in my stomach, my veins and my very
bones. But you, my fellow man, with your humanity and
compassion, one day you will feed us all and end this
scourge for ever."
Let's give the final word to Orhan Pamuk: "The optimism I
find in [Orhan Kemal's novels] comes not from literature but
from life itself."
"The Idle Years" by Orhan Kemal, published by Peter Owen,
12.50 pounds in paperback, ISBN: 978-072061310-0